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The Writing Date

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I’d heard the advice for years, probably since I first started writing like it’s a second job:  Establish a time when you sit down and write.  Clear out distractions and stick to that time; it is exclusively for writing.  Of course I ignored it, much like I ignore 90% of the writing advice I read from whatever hack put up whatever on his blog or got published in whatever magazine.  And I ignored it because I know better.  Other writers don’t know me and my methods.  They don’t know how important it is to me to slog around blindly, feeling every inch and only every inch in front of me and write in such a way that it feels like I’m giving birth sideways (hyperbole!).  Besides, I don’t believe in gimmicks.  They don’t work.  Until they do.  And then they stop becoming gimmicks and start becoming habits.  That’s why I have a writing date with myself on Wednesday afternoons during the summer.

This didn’t start as a writing date.  It started last summer (on my birthday, actually), and I was going to drive one town over for a little birthday present I bought myself.  I had been working on a poem that morning, and was having such fun with it that I decided I’d take the poem with me and camp out in the little coffee shop in said town one town over.  It turned out that there was a farmer’s market going on and there were lots of people milling around.  I ventured through the market and I ended up sitting on the back deck of a restaurant.  Got myself a little snack and a beer, and set to working on that poem.  I got up two hours later and thought how nice it was to be unexpectedly productive.  I went the next week, and the week after and the week after, and seemed to always have something to work on.  And I always walked away feeling it was time well spent.

So I formed a habit.  Now the writing date is locked on my schedule during the summer on Wednesday afternoons, though I have moved from the back deck of that restaurant to the beer garden of a bar up the street from there.  They offer full-time shade, a better beer selection, and huge tables so I can spread out my work.  Plus, there usually aren’t a lot of people there.  Why is this even worth writing about?  Because this blog is foremost a meta-cognitive journal about writing, so when things come up in my writing life it’s a good idea to come back to the blog.  Beyond that, though, it’s important that I found some structure for writing during the summer.  I am one who has frequently lamented the “dark side” of my annual 80+ days off; i.e. I tend to run off the rails and lose discipline and structure.  So plugging in some regular time helps avoid that.  Plus, it’s not just about Wednesday afternoon anymore.  I’m working on stuff in the days leading up to Wednesday so that when I arrive at the beer garden I have stuff going already and am not always trying to create new stuff.  An open, public environment usually isn’t conducive to generating new material, not for me at least, but I have found it to be effective for editing and redrafting because I’m not self-conscious about looking like I’m constipated when I’m in those stages of the writing process (hyperbole!).  Plus, this structure and discipline has helped me slog through what has been a very difficult piece to write these last few months (it will appear here soon), and without this habit I probably would have kept blowing the piece off until it was really too late to write it.  And then I would have kicked myself for blowing it off (not hyperbole!  the past few years of yoga have helped with my flexibility!).

There’s wisdom to be gleaned from all this, of course.  One such nugget is that I’ve stopped being so self-conscious about writing in public in a non-coffee shop setting.  I’ve had a hang-up in my head for years now that people look at you like you’re a freak or you’re trying to draw attention to yourself if you’re writing in public in an unexpected place.  Dunno where that came from, and it’s probably my imagination, but I seem to have dealt with the issue effectively.  Either that never really happened, or it’s still happening but now I don’t care.  The beer garden setting and so many other distracting things happening in the farmer’s market probably help in this regard.  Also, I learned to hold off on ordering a beer until later in my writing session.  I won’t get into the details of how I made that discovery, but trust me.  So I guess I can endorse setting a writing date with oneself.  Funny how this issue isn’t a problem during the school year when I have much less time and much more structure.  I guess that will be a blog for a different time.

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Written by seeker70

August 2, 2016 at 9:06 am

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All Kinds of Crazy Shit–Including Yoga

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A lot of my writing life is spent waiting for something to happen.  Perhaps it only seems that way, but it feels like time drags by when I’m not writing something.  When the situation reaches terminal velocity, I find things to do other than write.  Like play a shitton of NES Classic.  Or watch Netflix.  Or god forbid, I actually clean the house.  The absence of any  substantive writing happening is almost palpable, even though I know it’s all in my head.  The thing is that writing is one of my barometers.  Along with teaching and running, writing is one of those things that indicates how life is really going.  I frequently tell my students that those three barometers are quite important to me, and I work consistently to assure that each one is tuned and operational.  When one isn’t, the other two can make up for that.  So if I’m not writing well, then having a good day in the classroom or having a good run at the forest preserve can help bring the writing back in line.  I can’t count how many  times in the last fifteen years that a good morning 5K breaking through with a poem or story has boosted my teaching.  It’s only a three-pronged system, but it’s complicated and goes through all kinds of mutations and permutations even day-to-day sometimes, but I know it’s my system and I know I have the power to push all three factors in the direction I need to.

So what to do in the summer when I’m not teaching, I feel like crap when I run, and I’m not writing anything that I’m excited about?  It’s a question I’ve been facing down since school got out a month ago.  I rely so heavily on the three barometers, but what do I do when they’re out of whack or essentially unreachable at some points?  Gut it out, I guess, and wait for something to break through.  I wrote last week about finally turning a corner last Tuesday in my quest for thirty 5Ks, and I think that may have been what did it to get me out of my funk.  On Wednesday, I had a good day of writing on my writing date—I forced myself to stay seated, even when I was plenty ready to leave, and crap out the first draft of a flash fiction that came to me by way of the seed journal—and then on Thursday I returned to tutoring for the first time this summer and had a good session with my student in the adult literacy program where I volunteer.  Before I knew it, the ice was cracking and thawing, and I almost felt back to my regular self.

Here’s the thing, though:  I wasn’t really trying to do any of those things.  All three are part of my summer routine.  They are things I pretty much do instinctively.  Friday morning came around, and I was feeling better about life.  I got to thinking about the crappy flash fiction as I was driving to yoga class.  What I could possibly do with the story?  Most likely, it would just be good practice and nothing would probably come from it.  But then I struck a pose about a half hour later and it was like a bell rang in my  head.  I realized my story needed a solid closing image to leave the reader thinking.  It even came to me what the image should be.

Now I’m starting to think that I have the whole “three barometers” thing wrong.  I’m starting to think that it’s not teaching, running, and writing that do it for me.  I’m thinking that it’s yoga, and I’m just now realizing after four years how yoga feeds all three of my barometers.

This is not an easy thought for me because I don’t like yoga.  I only do it so I don’t keep getting tendinitis from running.  And so I can keep my shoulders fit and operational.  And so I can have a healthy stretch and maintain some decent degree of flexibility.  And to calm down sometimes.  And to be mindful of my body.  And to feel solid physical balance.  In fact, I don’t like yoga so much that I wrote a poem about how much I don’t like it.  Plus, I don’t like the idea of my life hinging on one factor because it’s not one thing that goes right that makes everything else go right.  Feeling content with life comes down to keeping the positive things happening and keeping a healthy balance among all things positive, negative, joyous, or stressful (shut up, I know:  “yoga helps you maintain your balance” said every yoga instructor ever).

Here’s also why it’s not all about the yoga:  If I hadn’t read Adam O’Fallon Price’s “A Natural Man” in The Paris Review Thursday evening last week, the breakthrough with my story would never have happened at yoga Friday morning.  Have I mentioned that you constantly read stuff when you’re a writer because that’s what writers do?  So even when they’re not writing, writers are reading and thinking on what they read and how what they read is going to inform what they are writing or what they will write.  And I happened to be at yoga when I was thinking of the stunning final image in Price’s story, which is a good thing because yoga is renowned for opening one’s mind and encouraging one to explore and accept thoughts and ideas, coincidentally while a body is working through sun salutations and downward dogs and chaturanga dandasanas.  So it’s a combination of things that balance my life, and I happened to hit the right combination at the right time because I’m too stubborn to give up on things when I get frustrated.  Spin the roulette wheel enough times and every number comes up, right?  That’s kinda what I was doing by waiting the situation out.

So I guess if nothing else I’ve discovered that my three barometers are intact, functioning, and reliable, and yoga can help me get through and maintain if my barometers are faulty.  I’m happy to have that wisdom just now since I turn 47 today.  No answer yet as to how I have gotten this old this fast.  I’m closing in on my quest for thirty 5Ks (one left!), and feel physically as well as I can expect to feel for my age, activity level, and eating and drinking habits.  Hell, I can walk upright!  That’s something!  And finally, I found out just yesterday that the crappy piece of flash fiction that I found a good closing image for is going to be published.  More on that in the next few weeks.  I subtitled my last blog post “Sometimes You Just Gotta Believe,” and I guess that applies as much to this post as it did to the last one.

Written by seeker70

July 1, 2017 at 6:18 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Your First Constraint (scenes from the conference)

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Part of the intent of attending the NorUSumWriCon last weekend was to bolster some areas of my teaching of creative writing.  As such, I took some workshops that by preview alone offered content that I was already familiar with, but that was okay because it helps to get content from a different set of eyes, especially some higher up on the writer food chain than a high school Creative Writing teacher and part-time writer.  Almost to a person, the people who lead these workshops are college professor types who have a book or two under their belts.  That was exactly the case with Jarrett Neal, who lead a workshop on Point of View.

Point of View left. So I guess it isn’t there anymore.

How you answer the question of who is telling your story is going to be the first and biggest constraint you put on your story, and Neal did a great job of exploring the consequences, both positive and negative, of each POV.  One good point he made was that world-building narratives need to be in 3rd person.  I had thought that for some time, but had never had the wherewithal or demands to verbalize it as such.  It makes sense:  A world new to the reader needs to been seen in its entirety so all the details are known and so the reader can fully experience that world.  The most immediate example I can think of was 1984.  The dystopian future of Oceania is only effective to the degree it is because it comes from an all-seeing, all-knowing narrator.  We can’t experience that world the same way if it’s only Winston relating events and thoughts.  We’d be lost because Winston certainly wouldn’t tell us the dirty details that he already knows as part of his everyday life (who would really do something like that?), and we’d also only get what Winston saw in his mundane daily existence.  This world-building idea is ambitious, though; too much so for the students who usually take my Creative Writing class.  As such, I ban world-building stories because it really is too much for a young writer to handle.  No joke—I literally have a “do not write” list I give students!

Something else we did was play around with POV a little bit.  I was tasked with starting a third-person omniscient passage based on this prompt:  “My wife and kids are gone for a week.”  The issue right off was that the prompt was voiced in first-person.  So how to convey the idea of an absent spouse and offspring without saying it directly?  And then there was the problem of having another character in the passage, too, so it wouldn’t be confused with third-person limited.  And speaking of constraints!  Neal said 100 words was all we had to work with.  I managed to get what follows down in my journal.

That was fast.  Unexpectedly.  It had been too long, which was why.  But now that he had worn out Tube8 (and himself), Rick was left wondering how he was going to spend the remaining 167 1/2 hours.

On the other side of the city, Kathleen was gunning the engine to outrun the semis that would slow her entrance to the freeway.  Once she merged, she thumbed the cruise control buttons on the steering wheel.  Eighty-six wasn’t too fast, was it?  Even with three kids?  But the sooner they were in Reno, the more time they had to do…  nothing.  By her estimate, they’d have 164 hours.

But that wasn’t it.  Once I had a workable passage, I had to rewrite it in first-person POV.  This is something I encourage my students to experiment with, but I don’t mandate it.  After experiencing the benefits of this exercise, I think I am going to demand it in the future.  The benefits of switching POV are things I’ve known as a writer for some time, but still manage to forget or neglect when I’m writing.  It was good to be reminded to play around with the writing every now and then and see what happens.  I like the third-person POV better because I got in some free-indirect discourse, but the first-person POV wasn’t too bad, either:

Holy shit that was fast.  But it has been a while.  Because the girls are old enough now to know about browser histories and Kathleen’s lecture on exploitation isn’t worth sitting through.  It doesn’t mean anything anyhow.  Just casual browsing.  I thought I’d get more time in, but the temptation was too great.  I still have 167 1/2 hours, which means I can likely watch more.  But not before I Google how to discreetly and permanently delete browser histories.  Kathleen is probably hitting the freeway by now, and no doubt risking a speeding ticket to get the hell away from here as fast as possible.  You go, girl.

So what to do with all this?  Nuttin’, honey.  Or maybe something.  Who knows?  The seed for a story is there.  It’s up to me to do something with it if or when I feel like it, though the practice is far more important than the product.

Written by seeker70

August 23, 2017 at 10:35 pm

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Thirty 5Ks… #18-20 (inescapable truths)

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“Viral diarrhea,” my high school Cross Country coach said thirty years ago, “stops for no man.”  I thought that surely he wasn’t talking to me.  I could barely run, and I certainly couldn’t run fast enough to catch viral diarrhea.

Boy, how I wish I had listened.  It took me thirty years, but I finally caught it.  And boy, did it run it’s course.  It left me as a weakened, dehydrated shell of my former self who was afraid to pass gas for fear of passing something far more sinister.

But I’m over it and back on the quest, despite running a mere week after the affliction and feeling weak, hot, and just bummed out in a way I never feel when I run.  Musta been the viral diarrhea.  I can’t help but feel my mortality, too, the feeling of which seems to be as inescapable as my shadow since I tripped past the halfway point between forty and fifty last summer.  I can’t bounce back from sickness like I used to, and that is most obvious in how I can or cannot command my physical self.  Fear not, though.  I’m still stubborn.  That may be the everlasting gift from all this running.  So despite running a ragged, slow race two weeks ago, I laced up my Asics twice last weekend.  It wasn’t really about the time, though I fared better two weeks out from viral diarrhea than I had only a week removed from it.  It was more about this quest and getting my goal down to a manageable single digit before school lets out for the summer.  As it stands right now, I have ten more races to do within ninety-seven days.

This has absolutely nothing to do with running.

One thought that sustained and inspired me as I worked back into form from viral diarrhea was that the writers and producers of Orange is the New Black may have finally capitulated and given up their no good show-ruining flashbacks.  I read two weeks ago that the new season will take place over the span of three days.  It seems unlikely that new characters will be introduced, and the action in the prison is so intense just now that maybe the whole thirteen-episode will unwind through total forward momentum.  I can’t think of a better thing they could do with the series, and lobbied for such a few years ago when I was thinking about OITNB.  If this comes to fruition, maybe we’ll be looking at the best season to date of the series.  I hope so.

The actress who plays the profile character Piper (yawn) said what is the most reassuring thing anybody has said about the series:

“I think the stakes are higher in this season than they have been in a while just by virtue of the compressed time and seeing people in compressed circumstance really raises the stakes.”

The idea of forward momentum and compressed time and unity of setting were all hard lessons learned by me as a writer, and they are definitely what I mandate as a Creative Writing teacher, so I can’t wait to see what happens.

*I used the term “viral diarrhea” five times in this blog post.

Written by seeker70

April 25, 2017 at 7:53 pm

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Ghosts of Valentine’s Past, pt.2

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continued from yesterday…

Later on, as we chatted about jobs and hobbies and respective educations and all that other first-date stuff, she asked, “You’re an intellectual snob, aren’t you?”  She had an in-between tone, sort of joking, but a little edgy.

In my mind, I said, “Yeah, sure,” but on the surface I said, “That’s probably saying it too strongly.  But I am very intellectual.”

Now I have to explain.  We were at a hotel bar, and the reason I was at a hotel to begin with was because there was a writing conference being held there, and I was attending the writing conference.  So the whole lobby (and especially the bar) was teeming with writers and professors and editors, who themselves are very intellectual.  So I was really in my element.  I tried to consider how this might make her feel uncomfortable; I tired to tone down the intellectual intensity I know I have.  However, the second and third time she accused me of being an intellectual snob, I let all consideration go and thought, You’re on your own, sister.  I didn’t feel so bad about it, either, because she was a therapist and I think it’s reasonable to expect that she should be able to manage her emotions effectively if for some reason she is uncomfortable in public.

We parted way and haven’t spoken since, which surprised me because we had a 2 or 3 week lead-up to the date ripe with emails, texts, and phone calls.  But at least I know she walked away with some nice Ferrero Rocher chocolates.  I realized, too, that she torpedoed things form the word “go” when she opened our conversation by announcing her plans for 7PM and it was already 4:30.  But like I said, she’s a therapist and I’m certain she figured it out.  But that leads me to question:  If therapists need to talk about things and figure out their issues, do they go see another therapist?  I think they would or should be aware of things in their own heads because they are trained to recognize things in the heads of others and help them with their cognitive processes.  But then again, if that were true, then therapists would be the most emotionally balanced and lucid people we could imagine walking down the sidewalks right next to us.  And that’s not true, so I guess it’s fair to suppose that therapists go see a therapist hen they need therapy.

I think it’s mere happenstance that these two dates took place on Valentine’s Day.  Regardless of the day, it was the people on the dates that was the problem.  These dates wouldn’t have worked on Bastille Day or Cinco De Mayo or even Arbor Day.  Some people might be thankful that at least there was some sort of romance on Valentine’s Day so I should be happy about that, but I’m not one of those people.  That’s usually what happens on Valentine’s Day anyhow.  Besides 2003 and 2009, I’ve usually had a girlfriend on Valentine’s Day (all except for 2007, when for whatever reason I didn’t).

Written by seeker70

February 13, 2014 at 8:36 am

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The Most Wonderful Time of the Year?

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The holiday break wraps up here after an extension for cold weather, and for the nineteenth straight year I’m saying “It’s time.”  The holiday break is like a summer vacation packed into sixteen days.  Just like summer vacation, you spend those first few days languishing, reveling in the glory that you don’t have to be at work until Next Year!  And when you say it like that, it makes those sixteen days seem longer.   But also like summer vacation, you reach the point where the languishing becomes an almost terminal condition.  That’s when you know that it’s time to get back to work.  Personally, I reached the tipping point Thursday afternoon when I fell into a cocktail-induced nap that lasted until 7PM.  I awoke asking myself what happened to the day, despite having cleaned up around the house and having worked out for the fourteenth day in a row.

Getting to the holiday break has never been easy, and this year was no exception.  When you work at a school where more than half the students live in poverty, it can be hard to find the joy in the season.  There are several factors that contribute to this.  One is timing.  The holiday break comes with less than two weeks left in the semester.  Students who haven’t gotten their act together all semester now know that they are going to fail and there is nothing that can be done about it.  It’s not uncommon for them to act out.  Take a class full of low-level or struggling learners, and as many as half the students might have checked out some time between the Thanksgiving turkey coming out of the oven and the Christmas turkey going in.  The resulting amount of classroom distractions crests for the semester, and rampant discipline problems follow.

You can pretty much forget about meeting with a counselor this time of year if you’re trying to help a student or bring a situation to their attention before it runs off the rails.  They’re too busy dealing with kids who are melting down at the prospect of spending sixteen days away from school.  I recently mentioned this to a well-educated woman who lives in an affluent community south of where I teach.  I might as well have been telling her that Martians have landed.  Our students aren’t deliberating about whether to visit Telluride or Jackson Hole–they’re preparing to deal with a bare floor under the Christmas tree (if there is a Christmas tree), the heat not working, not enough food for Christmas dinner, or an out-of-control parent that they don’t have to be around when they are at school but now have to be around for sixteen straight days.  What’s more, we seem inundated each year by students being pressed to donate every last cent in their pockets to the local food bank or Toys for ______, or whatever other charitable cause someone has managed to wheedle into the school.  I’m all for giving and considering those who have too little during this season of abundance, but I think some people should think twice about badgering a student population in which 1 out of every 2 students is in poverty–especially when you hear kids mumble, “Who the hell is watching out for me?”

There are other things happening, too.  Our fights spike to their highest point before the end of winter.  One dean explains this as a weather phenomenon:  The kids aren’t getting outside to burn off energy or frustrations like they do in the fall and spring.  I think there’s more to it than that, and it goes back to my previous point of kids feeling like they’re trapped without school as an outlet.  They are quicker to anger, and too many of them already have little or nothing to lose, so why not pop someone who has been aggravating you?  And then there are the thefts.  Things disappear.  IPods, cellphones, nice sets of headphones, entire book bags.  Even hats, gloves, and winter coats can walk away if left unattended.  One of my Creative Writing students wrote a story about an encounter with a girl in a locker room who stole a scarf from her.  She ended up “gifting” it to the young lady, who appeared to be in more desperate need of it.  At least someone was feeling the spirit of the season.

More often than not, we limp across the finish line as we head into the holiday vacation.  It takes some time to rebound from that before you can feel the spirit of the season–and sometimes it takes more than a few days.  I think my first encounter with the holiday season at my current school left me jaded for a few years.  I couldn’t quite capture that Christmas feeling after witnessing first-hand how difficult it is for people in different circumstances.  None of that changes the fact, though, that we ethically have to push on.  We can’t stop teaching and let things slide that week before the holiday.  As tempting as that sounds, it would actually make things worse.  All we’re left with is to keep with the classroom routines we’ve been following, despite coming across as The Grinch.

Pushing on has a lot to do with why it’s time to get back, too.  Pushing on and returning to “normalcy” will help deaden the foul taste left from the weeks before Christmas.  A new semester will start soon enough, and that nominal rebirth will help even more.

Written by seeker70

January 5, 2014 at 8:43 pm

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“The Nature of the Beast”

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continued from yesterday…

I’ve been digging through my journals to find out when I started drafting “The Nature of the Beast.”  My first evidence of it is on September 30, 2012.  That’s not when I started writing it, though–I think I started writing the poem, or the story, years ago.  The episode upon which it is based has hung around in my mind for literally decades, ever since it happened.  That’s almost always a huge signal that I’ve got a story or poem ready to draft.  Those crumpled leaves stuck in the cobwebs of my mind that never get swept away by time, that steadfastly cling in the corners, oft times yield the best and most meaningful writing as I try to figure out what they mean.

This one started as a paragraph, which anymore is my preferred method as I begin to draft a poem.  I can’t remember exactly where I picked this one up, though I think it came from The Practice of Poetry, which I bought at a library clearance sale in Lake Geneva quite some time ago.  It sits on my nightstand, and on the occasions that I crack it open, some type of gold usually pours forth.  So after years of this episode sitting in my mind, I sat down and generated this paragraph in my huge black poetry writing journal:

Grab the wire cutters my father called to me from the back yard.  There was a deer caught in the fence that separated our flat green yard from the wild brown weeds beyond.  He had tried to jump the fence but was snagged there like a clumsy criminal who hadn’t thought out his crime very carefully, or overestimated all he could get away with.  That’s what the deer were–criminals.  Mostly petty, but always malicious.  They’d gnawed our cherry saplings down to the ground.  They were constantly raiding the garden under the bright rustic moon, not just eating but trampling plants and scarring the soil and soiling the rows.  They taunted our dogs, and one buck had used his antlers to launch our orange tomcat ass over teakettle.  Yet there one was, caught, scared, vulnerable to his victims and whatever other hardened criminal might happen along.  He stood there on three legs, desperately yanking the fourth.  We didn’t snip any wires, just separated some crossed strands and allowed him to break free and spring uphill with his white tail flashing.  All it took was hands and hearts in the right place.

I have a ton of drafts from a few different journals for the next six weeks as I kept returning to the poem.  I remember at one point I did some research into the term used for the sounds deer make.  Turns out the term is “wheeze.”  The final draft I have once it made it to a word processing document is dated January 17, 2013.  That was enough time for me to generate this, with the help of the supremely talented poet and editor Barbara Bennett:

The Nature of the Beast by Jeff Burd
There is a deer caught in the fence
at the back of our property;
one of a gang of delinquents
who are in the garden more than weeds.
They gnaw the tomatoes and beans.
They scar the soil and soil the rows.
They taunt our dogs.
One of them hooked our orange tomcat
with his rack and
flung him ass over tea kettle.
This one wheezes as we trudge back to him—
a tough cover for how vulnerable
he now is to his victims and
whatever else might come through the brake.
He kicks and struggles against the wires
until we get our hands in the right places
for him to spring himself.
He glares at us from the other side of
the fence, wheezes again,
and then sprints uphill
with his white tail flashing.

Written by seeker70

December 31, 2013 at 4:51 pm

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The Seeker Retrospective: Notes on The Last Night of Misery

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Baseball is the second-most written about topic on The Seeker, and I don’t feel like I’ve written about it quite as well as I did with this one, which is only the third baseball post ever here.  I thought for a while about trying to get this published, and think I got it rejected from at least one place, but then decided it looks best here (which also means I got tired of trying to improve upon it!).  It’s also five years old (original post date:  October 5, 2008), which like yesterday’s Dirty Harry post makes it one of the oldest posts on the blog.  One of the things I like best about it is how it’s a document to my disillusionment with the Cubs (and could likely serve as the same for many other Cubs fans), and foreshadows my forsaking of the team until they finally show that they’re serious about baseball.  It’s been five years, and they haven’t gotten too much closer to doing that (a .447 winning percentage since this was originally posted).  This is a long one, though, which makes it a dinosaur in these pages. I stopped posting pieces of this size, having finally realized that shorter is definitely better for The Seeker.  And yes, I can hear you sigh with relief at my having said that!

Like a tired animal that wants nothing more than deliverance, I’ve crawled to a dark corner and I wait. This dark corner is a bar close to my condo; it’s scattered with a handful of high-top tables, a pool table, and a dozen locals. Someone cues “Stairway to Heaven” on the jukebox. It plays like a dirge.

I talked to my brother on the phone almost the entire way here. He’s a non-Cubs fan, bordering on hating them. Odd for a man who took me to my first Cubs game and used to scalp tickets at the corner of Clark and Addison like it was his job. Neither of us can figure out what has happened. I have theories ranging from factual (Derrek Lee is choking) to superstitious- the baseball gods are punishing the Cubs for the Disneyland atmosphere at Wrigley; that, and the Cubs were supposed to be first to break their curse in 2003, before the Red Sox and White Sox broke theirs.  Of course, there’s always the curse of the billygoat.

The carnival atmosphere may be most to blame; it has enveloped Wrigleyville like a fog cloud, soaking into the bleachers like paint, and finally trickling into the psyche of the players. It manifested itself in Game 1 when the Cubs showed up like it was a spring training game; or worse, like Dusty Baker had given them a pregame pep talk.

Bottom of the 1st: Russell Martin advances to 3rd; the replay clearly shows he was thrown out by Alfonso Soriano.  James Loney’s single is enough to plate Manny Ramirez from 2nd base. Why on Earth would the Red Sox ditch him?

The carnival atmosphere has blown north on a crisp fall wind. The first bar I walked past on my way here was flooded with people. They leaked out onto the front stoop and into the street. No word about the Cubs on my way past.  I seem to be the only one concerned with their fate. There could be several explanations for that. I’m still in my infancy as a citizen of Cubs Nation; still naive. I’m still concerned, still insistent, still something about all the great things that could happen to the team now and in the future. I didn’t suffer the collapse of ’84. The tragedy of ’03 smarted, but it was my first wound and it eventually healed. But now I am hurting. I’m invested in this team. We share common blood. I suffered the Dusty Baker years, positive there would be a light at the end of the tunnel. A mere two years later, it looked like there was not only a light, but one shining from the heavens, beckoning us all to immortality.

In the 3rd inning, the music from the jukebox still blares: “Bad Moon Rising,” “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” Who programmed this music, Cardinals fans? When Mike Fontenot and Derrek Lee get on base, one other bar patron notices.

Have we accepted this as our fate, that the Cubs are always going to be losers, so why not just get drunk and celebrate it? Why not perpetuate the cycle of the expectation of failure, accept it, and live with it? But I can’t. There’s still some childish optimism in me, something that believes there is a collective will, a collective conscience, and we can will the Cubs to win. Surely Boston fans did it on ’04. How else is there to explain the collapse of the Yankees after they held a 3-0 advantage in the ALCS?

In the Dodgers half of the third, Fontenot tweaks his ankle chasing an overthrown pickoff attempt. The sparkplug Lou Pinella was hoping would stoke the Cubs’ engine to higher performance is misfiring. Fontenot jogs it off, adjusts his cup, and is ready to play. Where has that grit and determination been in other Cubs?

Two guys stumbled in during the 2nd inning, took a table, and halfway pay attention to the game. Now there are at least three of us vested.

Jim Edmonds advanced Geovany Soto in the 4th inning. The Cubs batted 5 times last inning, and now are doing things that win playoff games. They’ve worked Hiroki Kuroda to 67 pitches already. There might be some hope left; they batted 5 times again this inning.

The Cubs got beat in Game 1 because the Dodgers played classic Joe Torre playoff baseball. They made Ryan Dempster pitch to them, worked him late into the count every time they could, collected an ungodly amount of walks, and then pounded the ball when Dempster gave them something. It was textbook, and I was surprised Pinella waited so long for Dempster to get on track, which makes me believe that Pinella might be the problem. His Mariner teams flamed out remarkably in the playoffs, even when stacked with its own All-Star team with the likes of Ken Griffey Jr., A-Rod, and Randy Johnson.

Between the 4th and 5th, a local drunk stumbles over to see what I’m writing and manages to spew out, “I hope the Cubs pull off the impossible and comeback.”

“Me, too,” I tell him.

“Same with the Sox. I’m a Sox fan.” Before stumbling over to the pool table, he checks with me. “What inning is it?”

There’s a simple solution to all this: Abandon the Cubs. I call them my team, have written and published stories about how I was reborn into baseball in 2001 and emerged as a Cubs fan; I’ve further proclaimed myself a Brewers fan, but would stick with the Cubs over them. But there’s more to the story than that. I’m a lifelong Orioles fan, ever since my father took me to an Orioles / Tigers double-header in 1979 and we sat in the first two rows by the visitor’s on-deck circle. The only major big-ticket baseball item I have purchased is an Orioles officially-licensed MLB jersey.  But that team sucks, too, and they’re half a continent away.  I guess I’ve decided to root for a team that sucks locally.

“Freebird” plays on the jukebox as I think about this, and it appears to be playing for a reason. I can’t change this now; I’m a Cubs fan. I’m not fair-weather with my teams any more than I am with my friends. I’m in this until the end of days.

During a pitching change in the 5th, a girl chokes on her liquor and spews it on the floor. She rushes to the restroom, but comes out of the restroom a minute later grasping her throat and pleading with her friends that she didn’t vomit.

The Cubs have played from behind the entire series, except for that brief blissful span in Game 1 after Mark DeRosa’s two-run homer. Playing from behind is not going to work in the playoffs, not against a manager who is going to dictate that his team plays patient baseball with very deliberate at-bats and solid defense.

An Hispanic woman in a navy Jewel cashier smock is sitting at the bar and has been minding the game. The two guys who came in the 2nd inning are long gone; there’s only two of us now. She looks at me plaintively when Edmonds strikes out to end the Cubs’ 6th. We shake our heads. She has a tired face and heavy eyelids.

There’s a pitching change in the bottom of the sixth, Carlos Marmol for Sean Marshall.

Is this what the band felt like aboard the Titanic as the freezing water inched closer and closer?

The bar is as quiet as it has been since I entered. I make a quick trip to the bathroom between the 6th and 7th inning and find a woman in the men’s facilities. A man is washing his hands; he looks at me, shakes his head, and claims, “Dude, I don’t even know.”

Kosuke Fukudome has inexplicably been inserted into the lineup, despite Pinella’s apparent disgust with him after Game 2. He’s my favorite Cub, and moreover an example of my favorite MLB players on the whole: the Japanese ones. Their fundamentals are always so excellent; they’re always so focused. My heart sinks a bit, but he strokes a single in the 7th and advances Ryan Theriot to 2nd with 1 out. Alfonso Soriano is up. Torre makes a pitching change.

The Cubs are 0-6 with runners in scoring position when Fontenot gets up with runners at the corners with 2 outs. He flies to center, and it if wasn’t obvious before, it is now: The greatest fear of Cubs nation has come true. We are slumping at the worst possible time, and can no more pull ourselves out of it than a magnet can pull itself away from North. I’m halfway through my third beer of the evening, and am feeling a bit of a soothing buzz in my brain. I could stay here until closing and drink myself into oblivion.

The Russell Martin run that was allowed to score in the first because of the botched call at third base is of no consequence. The Cubs have gone 0-7 with RISP since then, and are still trying to hatch a goose egg.

Derrek Lee scores in the 8th. One person claps.

Seventeen thousands dollars has been raised for someone affectionately known as “Gizmo.” A man parading around the bar holding a banner that proclaims as much tells everybody that Gizmo was his right-hand man, and they all ought to be proud of themselves for having raised so much. Two girls in white t-shirts with information about the Gizmo fundraiser have been in the bar for a few innings now, promoting whatever the cause is. One breaks into sobs and moves to the back of the bar when the man with the banner announces the totals.

Neil Cotts strikes out the side in the Dodgers’ half of the 8th. Where has that been all year?

Top of the 9th. The bar is almost empty. Hip-hop blares from the jukebox. A man has his dog on a leash and is walking it around the bar.

Soriano whiffs to end the game. Nobody notices. Nothing changes in the dark corner. The music plays too loud. A few drunk girls stumble past my table. Nobody says a word about the game.

I pack my stuff, zip my hoodie, and walk home. It’s cold; the air nips at my bald head. I can see my breath when I exhale. I can see some leaves that have changed color when I pass under street lights. There are Halloween decorations up in many yards. Baseball season is over for me. I’ll think I’ll hibernate until April. Then I’ll wake up and drink the Kool-Aid once again. The Cubbie Blue Kool-Aid.

Written by seeker70

August 13, 2013 at 1:01 am

Posted in Cubs, death, playoffs

Earl Weaver is Dead

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It’s a sad day in Baltimore and further west here at The Seeker.  It was announced this morning that Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver died of a heart attack.  He was 82 years old.  Weaver’s impact on baseball cannot be fully measured, and I may never fully appreciate my choice to write about him four years ago in that my story was published and continues to live lives beyond what I ever imagined.

I’ve already received a few phone calls and text messages, as if I lost a member of my family.  I’ve been digging through ESPN online since I woke, and keeping half an eye on breaking news on ESPN, knowing that I would post a few things about the man who said that when he dies his gravestone should read, “The Sorest Loser Who Ever Lived.”  My dedication to the legendary coach is old news to those of you who have followed The Seeker since its early days.  I started researching Weaver in the spring of 2009.  I was about a month removed from finishing my thesis to graduate from the Northwestern University writing program and was still feeling a lot of momentum regarding writing, and the idea to research Weaver struck me.  If I remember correctly, I spent about 45 minutes after school one day reviewing a few YouTube videos and finding and printing a few articles.  When I read them at home that night, I knew that there was a story to write.

I detailed the trials and tribulations of compiling research and writing about Weaver in these pages (click here for part 1 of a 6-part serial), and subsequent to that have found the most success I’ve ever had in writing.  The story has never really died, either–I’ve updated it a few times since publication whenever something came up about Weaver.  I’ve found the story referenced in a few places online, and never missed the chance to tell somebody that it can be found in the research archives at the Baseball Hall of Fame.  All in all, I’d say that Earl Weaver did right by me, and I tried my best to do right by him.

One thing I’ve never done, though, is to run my Earl Weaver story here.  I guess I always figured that I’d wait until he passed away, and then dole it out in a few episodes.  So, in honor of the passing of The Earl of Baltimore, I’ll run the most recently updated version of “Strategy, Innovation, and 94 Meltdowns” here over the course of the next few days.

Rest in Peace, Earl.  Your constant nemesis Ron Luciano once said that when you die, they’re going to have to pay people to be your pallbearers.  Maybe so, but you never wavered from doing things your way, and it got you all the way to the Hall of Fame.

Written by seeker70

January 19, 2013 at 12:05 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Back to School– Day 26

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Want to learn how to hit a baseball? I learned through research and practice five years ago that you should be swinging a bat 100 times a day. Want to improve your jump shot? Shoot a hundred a day–and according to David Robinson, it would help if you did 200 full-court layups each day (100 righted-handed, 100 left-handed). A photographer I dated once told me that you don’t take your first real picture until you’ve taken 10,000 pictures. Where am I going with this? Simple: If you want to understand how fiction works and dramatically improve your ability to write it, handle 800 pages of fiction manuscripts over the course of a month.

I hadn’t really thought about the number until I was wrapping up my last few manuscripts yesterday. My neighbor walked passed my room and stopped to comment that every time she sees me, I’m laying in my bay window studying a manuscript. That gave me pause, and after some quick math I told her that all told, I’ve handled 800 pages of fiction manuscripts this month. Damn.

This is not a complaint. The manuscripts took a lot of my time here at The Skids, but it was what I felt I had to do to get where I wanted to go with my fiction skills. I realize now, too, that given how quickly I wanted to do it, it couldn’t have happened any other way. I wouldn’t want it to happen any other way. It would have taken me years to handle the same amount of material through standard university coursework, or in a writers group. Here and now, there’s a lot to be said for the overwhelming amount of paper, the repetition, for creating a routine, for putting effort into someone else’s writing, and dumping a lot of tools into your writer’s toolbox all at once. When you live and breath writing for an entire month, this is what is going to happen. I think I paid a fair price for it, and the dividends will continue to pay off for as long as I write.

*

It’s not all been about writers and writing at The Skids. First thing upon showing up on July 3, I met a group of 4 high school art teachers who were here on 5-week fellowships. They were a nice, smart group. It helped to have being a high school teacher in common (not many other teachers in the writing program) so when I got burned out eating three meals a day with writers, I could hang with my art teacher friends. It’s a rare day when I look to other teachers as a group I can escape to since I’m more often wanting to escape from many of them (my close teacher friends aside), but that didn’t seem to interfere with our collegiality.

Those artists served another function, too. I’m endlessly fascinated by how the artist creates, so it was worthwhile to hear them talk about their projects, their art and teaching philosophies, and how they help students gain an appreciation of art. They invited me to their studio, and it was quite an experience to see the work they had talked about over the past few weeks. Also, that experience helped exercise another part of my brain by verbalizing my thoughts on their paintings and sculptures, and hearing them talk about their visions for their work. To me, it’s imperitive to think about why a certain artist would want to work in a certain medium, and what they hope to accomplish by working in it. Having artists in my immediate company allowed me to ask those questions. I think they have the same curiousities about writing–why would a writer want to write a poem, a personal essay… whatever. What do they hope to accomplish by working in their chosen form? That may be the ultimate question a writer (or an artist) must answer.

*

So it’s all over now, except for the packing and the drive home. I’m shoving off late morning tomorrow, and will be back in Chicago on Tuesday. A stop in New Jersey and another in Indiana will delay my return, but I’m not in any particular hurry anyhow. My friend Joel asked me before I left if I will be a changed person upon my return. I told him then that I didn’t know, but I do now: Yes. June 28 was a long time ago; I haven’t seen friends or family since then. I’ve managed nicely, but there’s a lot to be said for being back home. It seems now that I was living a different life before I left. I haven’t had many stresses or worries here, and that has been most beneficial to expanding my writing schema. But I’ll be back home soon, back to paying bills and cleaning the bathroom and petting the cat; back to lesson planning and parent phone calls and grading papers soon enough after that. It will be up to me to hold onto and continue to develop my new skills. I can already tell you how that is going to turn out: Mission Accomplished.

Written by seeker70

July 29, 2011 at 5:50 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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